No place on earth surpasses the beauty of Northern Ireland’s legendary Antrim Coast, a stretch of splendid shoreline that commences north of the city of Belfast. However, the revelation I experienced there was not the landscape alone but the manner in which I explored it-on foot. I approached the experience as a blatant neophyte, and emerged seven days later a staunch advocate for seeing the world on the hoof.
There’s nothing terribly unique about a walking tour-except if you’re not a walker. However, I was sufficiently keen to see the Antrim Coast that an offer to join a hiking group proved irresistible. Before the adventure ended, I was destined to lose a toe nail, develop a few blisters, tingle with pure exhaustion, and totally annihilate an ill-suited pair of walking boots. Yet these events proved to be trivial by-products of the most satisfying travel experience I have yet enjoyed.
As the week-long getaway unfolded, I cast my eyes on mile after mile of exquisite Antrim coastline, and at the same time learned much about the relatively uncomplicated business of walking junkets. I now sing from the same song sheet as Charles Dickens who once said, “Walk and be happy, walk and be healthy.”
The mentor who turned me into a walking convert was our group leader, jovial John Ahern from County Kerry, a lean, 54-year-old Irishman as fit as a fiddle. Well over six feet tall with a stomach as flat as an ironing board, he brims with energy and can eat and drink whatever he pleases without developing a bulge.
SouthWest Walks Ireland
It isn’t a special set of genes that gave Irish John his trim physique and contented state of mind. A change of priorities a few years ago diverted his attentions to hiking and walking, an exercise he admits was totally new to him. “Let’s just say I needed a lifestyle change,” he says. Since then, he has developed a thriving business called SouthWest Walks Ireland. The name is somewhat misleading since John and a team of expert guides lead hiking and walking tours throughout all of the Emerald Isle, not just in the southwest.
On this particular trip, our leader had his hands full. Of the four women and four men in tow, only one was under 40 years old, and many in the group had never hiked before. In fact, most of us were prime examples of sedentary sloths whose idea of a brisk walk amounted to the distance between house and car.
John, however, was not deterred. “I can turn anyone into a walker,” he promised confidently at the beginning of our trip, “and they’ll enjoy it in the process.”
Northern Ireland Tourist Boar
He was right. A new sense of physical self, personal accomplishment, and a oneness with the environment quickly developed as we each discovered (or rediscovered) both ourselves and the Irish landscape so powerful that it threatens to take your breath away if the hill climbing hasn’t done so already.
One of the northeast coast’s most delightful walking routes-and a mere afternoon to complete-began at the famous Giant’s Causeway. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1987, this phenomenal geological curiosity is one of the prime wonders of the natural world and a spectacular launch point for a hike along the Antrim Coast. Giant’s Causeway consists of 40,000 basalt columns perfectly fitted together like a rock jigsaw puzzle. This collection of stone monoliths was formed more than 60 million years ago when underground volcanic eruptions shot molten basalt through the earth’s surface, later hardening into the columns of rock we now see.
SouthWest Walks Ireland
From the Causeway, the hike route took us several miles along the coast, offering spectacular views of the Irish Sea. As we walked over Antrim’s heather-covered moorland on various routes ranging from two to eight miles in length, paths were frequently within a few feet of lofty cliffs that fall away dramatically to the sea. No walker is rushed as Irish John often halts the group to point out indigenous flora like wild fushia, bog orchid and cotton grass. Offshore, he points out bird colonies of Kittiwakes and Puffins. There’s time to pause and talk about Ireland’s colorful history, Viking invaders, and the great Irish potato famine.
Other Antrim Coast walks followed trails through the arresting Glens of Antrim. Nine long, slender valleys (glens) stretch back from the sea toward the Antrim Mountains, and each one-lush, green, full of wildflowers and birds-is defined by dramatic waterfalls and sparkling rivers cascading over moss-covered rocks. One of them visits Glenarif Forest Park where a prepared walking path takes hikers by rushing cataracts and around rock gorges to reveal some of the most splendid mountain views anywhere.
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
Daily lunch and tea were taken picnic-style, and each day ended at an Irish inn which is often a history lesson in its own right, bearing none of the ho-hum, cookie-cutter characteristics of modern hotels.
Accommodations were exceedingly comfortable and almost without exception, meals were excellent, taken together as a group. Dinner, which included choices like succulent lamb, Atlantic salmon, filet of sole or British beef, was that mellow time of day when we replayed the walks we had done and reveled in our measurably increasing stamina to complete them. Evenings-frequently spent in a village pub rubbing shoulders with the locals-were filled with Irish music, song, laughter, dance and plenty of Irish ale.
Southwest Walks rates its various programs by level of difficulty-a “one boot” program is moderate, “two boot” is energetic, and “three boot” is strenuous. Only those people in top physical condition who hike regularly should ever consider a three boot tour. John Ahern says that people of any age are capable of enjoying guided walks in Ireland, yet the most common mistake he encounters are individuals choosing the wrong tour level.
SouthWest Walks Ireland
“Unfortunately, some clients book a three boot tour when they are clearly one booters,” he comments, “so they don’t get as much out of their experience as if they had gauged their abilities more appropriately.”
I, for one, know where I belong. I belong in beautiful Ireland-again and again-signed up for one boot tours. Speaking of which…I must confess that what I thought were serviceable walking boots did not stand up to the seven-day test. In the end, I happily left them behind in an Irish hotel waste basket, a symbol of my own right of passage into pursuing more active vacations in the future.
FOLLOW UP FACTS
For the past 10 years, SouthWest Walks Ireland has been delivering quality nature and Celtic culture tours throughout the Emerald Isle. About 60% of its clients are over 50, 65% are women, and 60% sign up as singles rather than twosomes. To find out more about any of their Irish walking holidays and a variety of special interest theme vacations, check the website: www.southwestwalksireland.com.
For information on Northern Ireland tourism, www.ni-tourism.com. See also www.GoIreland.com for comprehensive Ireland-wide information.
Many families go on a hiking holiday to Ireland and rent different cottages each night as they explore this beautiful country.
Donna Carter is a freelance writer specializing in travel, golf and sailing. She is a former editor of Sailing Canada, Travel a la Carte, Globehopper, and Century Home. In 1997 she co-authored a power boater’s guide to Lake Ontario. Donna has also earned the Travel Media Association of Canada’s Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.